Complicated numbers can create big challenges for small school sports.
From the minimum number of participants to form a team to the maximum use of limited resources, the region’s smaller high schools are calculating today’s math with the variable of tomorrow’s unknowns.
“We are good for volleyball. And we look good for girls and boys basketball,” said longtime De Beck High School athletic director Rod Graham. “This year we played seven volleyball games.”
Graham has been a fixture in the numbers game at De Beque since 1978, encouraging students to participate in sports and other activities.
He spent several days going from a rare number of students to explosive shale explosions. And busts.
The Dragons have won state championships in both boys and girls basketball in recent years, as well as multiple individual state titles.
With the high school’s current enrollment at 50, Graham said the school continues to promote activities to further engage students in learning.
The Dragons are playing full varsity volleyball with seven players this year. De Beke also has four runners competing this year.
The Dragons don’t offer football, but six De Beke boys play football at Grand Valley High School in Parachute, just 12 miles east of Interstate 70.
De Beck is a Class 1A volleyball team, one of only 72 schools in the entire state that enrolls up to 93 students.
The high school is similar in size to Walden’s North Park (42), Norwood (58), Ouray (52), Nucla (70) and Dove Creek (73).
Ouray, for example, is playing volleyball on a junior varsity schedule this season because of a limited number of players — a situation De Beek and many 1A schools have faced in the past.
De Beke volleyball coach Leslie Weiss said she has to be creative with a limited lineup.
“It is extremely difficult. But we’re fortunate to have guys that come in and help us practice,” Weiss said. “It helps a lot. But there’s actually a lot you can do.”
She said they focus on skill development and positioning.
“We work a lot on individual skills,” she said.
The small numbers help the players learn to depend on each other, she said.
“They have to work together, build each other up,” Weiss said.
“We also use video a lot. That’s how we spent most of practice yesterday — watching film,” she said. “It helps to understand the transition and know where to be defensively.”
Looking to the future, Graham said there are a couple of volleyball players in the current eighth-grade class who could move up to the high school level next year.
And, Graham said, De Beke’s current sixth-grade class is a larger class with multiple athletes.
PLATEAU VALLEY COWBOYS
The same numbers game is played every year at Plateau Valley High School, located near Colbran on the east side of Grand Mesa.
The Cowboys, with a high school enrollment of 100, are at the bottom of the 2A classification, which ranges from 94 to 299 students. Enrollment at Plateau Valley remained unchanged at 100 students.
Plateau Valley enrollment mirrors that of Ridgeway (107), Hayden (109), Sorocco (Oak Creek, 104), Rangeley (125) and West Grand (Kremling, 138).
By comparison, Caprock Academy in Grand Junction has 160 students. Vail Christian has 139, Vail Mountain has 158, Dolores has 163 and Meeker has 197.
“Athletics and science go hand in hand,” said Plateau Valley Principal Trevor Long, standing along the sunny sidelines during Saturday afternoon’s football game. “And you can make communication a lot easier … when you have smaller classes. The connections that teachers can make help the student stay motivated to stay on that athletic field.”
Plateau Valley plays eight-man football with a growing roster of 21 players, up from a smaller number three years ago.
The Cowboys also play volleyball in the fall with a staggering number of participants. Of about 40 girls at Plateau Valley High School, 31 play volleyball. The Cowboys, respectively, field three teams — varsity, junior varsity and the C team.
“These kids aren’t afraid to try,” Long said. “They know we need you, we need everybody.”
Long believed that the coaches at Plateau Valley created an inclusive and supportive atmosphere.
“Our coaches understand the big picture because of the small community,” he said. “We need every child to be a part of this.”
Long turned and pointed to the shadowy western slopes where generations of Plateau Valley families had gathered for a football game against the visiting Hayden.
“Just look here today,” Long said. “You have families. You have dads who played on this field. They know exactly what Saturday Night Football is all about.”
Assistant principal/athletic director John Holmes, who has been with Plateau Valley for 25 years, agreed.
He said intergenerational ties are part of the fabric of the school and community.
No significant increase in enrollment is projected, he said, in part because of the limited amount of affordable housing in the Plateau Valley region.
“There is unity here,” said the Plateau Valley principal. “When kids grow up together, go through good times and bad times together, that makes it special.”
At Long’s side was Wendy Nichols, the team’s longtime photographer and proud mother of the recent Plateau Valley graduate.
“Definitely sports help academics,” Nichols said. “With my own child, he wouldn’t have passed if sports didn’t keep him a reason to learn.”
She said the community is lucky because “you have all these people that your kids grew up around. They return year after year. They become part of your family.
“You watch them grow. And they come back and teach here. They come back and train here,” she said. “It’s cool to see.”
Nichols is principal of Grand Mesa High School on the Collbran Job Corps campus.
Job Corps traditionally has a few students interested in athletics; they played at Plateau Valley High School in the past.
“Covid destroyed us,” Nichols said. “Two years have passed. But now we are working on recovery. Our center (Job Corps) is getting bigger.”
She said that during the pandemic, the inpatient vocational training program was closed.
Job Corps reopened this fall with about 60 students. The current cap is 94 students, a figure set by the governing US Department of Labor.
The Department supervises Job Corps participants. Workers are supervised by the US Forest Service.
Nichols and her Job Corps teachers are members of the Plateau Valley School staff.
“The kids we usually get are kids who didn’t play (sports) in high school,” Nichols said. “They played when they were younger — pee-pee, high school. But a lot of them never had a chance to play in high school.”
This fall, Nichols said, one Job Corps student is playing football for the Cowboys.
A few more Job Corps players may join the Cowboys as Job Corps numbers grow, she said.
“The last two years our numbers have grown a lot (for football) and there’s a lot more passion at the school,” Nichols said of the program led by head coach Brian Bristol, a former Cowboys standout.
Glancing at the scoreboard, Nicholls added: “Obviously we’d like to have a better score. But they are working hard to make it better.”